Blowback in Somalia
When President Obama took office in 2009, the United States increased its covert military involvement in and around Somalia, as the CIA and JSOC intensified air and drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen, and began openly hunting people the United States alleged were Al Qaeda leaders. In September of that year, Obama authorized the assassination of Saleh Ali Nabhan, in his administration’s first known targeted-killing operation in Somalia. A JSOC team helicoptered into Somalia and gunned down Nabhan. JSOC troops then landed and collected the body. Earlier, in April, Obama had authorized JSOC to kill Somali pirates who had hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a ship operated by a major Defense Department contractor. But as the United States began striking in Somalia, the Shabab’s influence was spreading.
By 2010 the Shabab was in control of a greater swath of Somalia—by a long shot—than the Transitional Federal Government, even though the TFG was supported by thousands of US-trained, -armed and -funded African Union troops. The Ugandan government essentially picked up where the Ethiopian government had left off, and in Mogadishu AMISOM forces consistently shelled Shabab-held neighborhoods teeming with civilians. While the United States and its allies began bumping off militant figures, the civilian death toll pushed some clan leaders to lend support to the Shabab. Suicide bombings by Shabab militants, including US citizens, killed more than a dozen government ministers and other officials, and the Shabab regularly staged paramilitary parades. Under pressure from its paymasters to show that it had some control in Mogadishu, President Sharif’s government began turning to former ICU warlords for help. In parallel, Washington intensified its dealings with various regional power players and warlords.
By late 2010 the Obama administration unveiled what it referred to as a “dual-track” approach to Somalia wherein Washington would simultaneously deal with the “central government” in Mogadishu as well as regional and clan players in Somalia. “The dual track policy only provides a new label for the old (and failed) Bush Administration’s approach,” observed Somalia analyst Afyare Abdi Elmi. “It inadvertently strengthens clan divisions, undermines inclusive and democratic trends and most importantly, creates a conducive environment for the return of the organized chaos or warlordism in the country.”
The dual-track policy encouraged self-declared, clan-based regional administrations to seek recognition and support from the United States. “Local administrations are popping up every week,” says Aynte. “Most of them don’t control anywhere, but people are announcing local governments in the hopes that CIA will set up a little outpost in their small village.”
One of the more powerful forces that has emerged in Somalia’s anti-Shabab, government-militia nexus is Ahluu Sunna Wa’Jama (ASWJ), a Sufi Muslim paramilitary organization. Founded in the 1990s as a quasi-political organization dedicated to Sufi religious scholarship and community works—and avowedly nonmilitant—ASWJ viewed itself as a buffer against the encroachment of Wahhabism in Somalia. Its proclaimed mandate was to “preach a message of peace and delegitimize the beliefs and political platform of [al-Itihaad] and other fundamentalist movements.”
The group largely stayed out of Somalia’s civil war until 2008, when the Shabab began targeting its leaders, carrying out assassinations and desecrating the tombs of ASWJ’s elders. The Shabab considered ASWJ to be a mystic cult whose practice of praying at the tombs of Sufi saints was heresy. After much debate within the ASWJ community, militias were formed to take up arms against the Shabab. In the beginning, ASWJ’s fighting force of undisciplined clan fighters and religious scholars left much to be desired. Then, quietly, Ethiopia started arming and financing the group, as well as providing its forces with training and occasional boots on the ground. By early 2010 ASWJ was widely seen as an Ethiopian—and therefore US—proxy. In March 2010 it signed a formal cooperation agreement with Sheik Sharif’s government.
Among ASWJ’s key leaders is Abdulkadir Moallin Noor, known as The Khalifa, or The Successor. His father, a widely revered holy man, died in 2009 at 91, and had designated Noor as the new spiritual leader. Noor, educated in London, left his life of safety and comfort to return to Mogadishu, where he was given the title of minister of state for the presidency. Now he rolls around Mogadishu in an armored SUV with animal skins over the seats. Unlike Indha Adde, Noor is hardly a battle-hardened warlord, as evidenced by his tailored robes, pristine combat boots with the price tag still attached and the Koran he reads from his iPad. In his view, ASWJ is a natural US ally. Sufis, he says, are “good Muslims,” the antithesis of Wahhabis and Al Qaeda, and a natural fit for a close friendship with the United States.
As we walk through a camp outside Mogadishu that houses about 700 ASWJ members, Noor tells me his father built more than a thousand madrassas and forty-six mosques. Making our way through a labyrinth of tin structures, we pass a large kitchen, where women are preparing the afternoon meal of camel meat and pasta, a small medical clinic and large community sleeping areas. We enter a large barn where young men learn the Koran by studying verses written on wooden planks. “Since [the Shabab] started destroying the country and fighting with the government, we decided to take up arms. So the students who were here, you know, learning Koran and all those things, are now fighting against the Shabab. They are the ones who go to the frontline. They are not normal soldiers—they just have been given quick training, three months, and now they are fighting.”
Noor declines to reveal who funds ASWJ, but he singles out the United States as Somalia’s “number-one” ally. “I’m here to thank them, because they are helping us, fighting against the terrorists,” he tells me. What about on a military level? “I don’t want to mention a lot of things,” he replies. “But they are in deep, deep. They are working with our intelligence; they are giving them training. They do have people here, fighting Al Shabab. And by the help of Allah, we hope this mayhem will end soon.”
By some accounts, the ASWJ has been among the most effective fighters battling the Shabab outside Mogadishu, winning back territory in the Mudug region and several other pockets of land. But like most powerful paramilitary groups in Somalia, the ASWJ is far more complex than it may seem.
This past July, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia declared that some ASWJ militias “appear to be proxies for neighboring States rather than emergent local authorities.” According to the UN report, ASWJ also received support and training from Southern Ace, a private security firm. Technically registered in Hong Kong in 2007 and run by a white South African, Edgar Van Tonder, Southern Ace committed the “most egregious violations of the arms embargo” on Somalia. Between April 2009 and early 2011, according to the United Nations, Southern Ace operated a 220-strong militia, paying $1 million in salaries and at least $150,000 for arms and ammunition. Southern Ace began acquiring arms from the weapons market in Somalia, including scores of Kalashnikovs, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and an anti-aircraft ZU-23 machine gun with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Its arms purchases “were so substantial” that local officials “noted a significant rise in the price of ammunition and a shortage of ZU-23 rounds.” The company also imported to Somalia “Philippine army-style uniforms and bullet-proof jackets in support of their operations,” according to the UN.
Backed by Ethiopia and Southern Ace, ASWJ conducted a series of major offensives against the Shabab that the UN alleged were supported through violations of the arms embargo. While Ethiopia and the United States undoubtedly see ASWJ as the best counterbalance to the influence of the Shabab and Al Qaeda, in just three years they have transformed a previously nonviolent entity into one of the most powerful armed groups in Somalia. “To a certain extent, the resort to Somali proxy forces by foreign Governments represents a potential return to the ‘warlordism’ of the 1990s and early 2000s, which has historically proved to be counterproductive,” the UN soberly concluded.
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As the drought and famine grabbed international headlines in July, the Shabab announced a tactical retreat from Mogadishu in August, paving the way for Somali and AMISOM forces to move into areas that had been under the total control of the Shabab for more than two years. The Somali government has portrayed this as a military victory and has declared the beginning of the end of the group. However, “These assessments owe more to wishful thinking than reality,” according to an analysis published in the well-respected journal Africa Confidential. “The military and political damage to Al Shabaab is likely to prove temporary.” The drought has undoubtedly weakened the Shabab’s short-term ability to collect taxes, and diaspora revenue has slowed, partly because of increased US monitoring of Somali money transfers, resulting in an inability to buy sufficient ammunition to fight the well-armed AMISOM forces. While the Shabab has taken heavy casualties among its leadership, the group remains a powerful force, one that has shown an ability to adapt. “The war in Mogadishu and elsewhere is by no means over,” according to Africa Confidential’s analysis. “Al Shabaab could adopt low-level insurgency and avenge the loss of its senior cadres by carrying out a ‘spectacular,’ a major bombing in Somalia or a neighboring country.”
There is evidence that even before the drought and famine became major news, the group was already deliberating a major shift in tactics.
In June the man the United States alleged was Al Qaeda’s chief of operations in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was killed after he and a colleague got lost in the middle of the night and approached a Somali military checkpoint on the outskirts of Mogadishu. The Somali forces, not knowing his identity, riddled Fazul with bullets. US intelligence later determined it was indeed the most wanted man in Somalia.
In Mogadishu, a week after Fazul’s death, I interviewed senior Somali intelligence officials who were poring over the materials seized from the mobile command post Fazul had operated from his car. Among the documents recovered were writings by Fazul criticizing the Shabab leadership for trying to fight AMISOM and Somali government forces head-on. Instead of seeking to hold territory, he advised Shabab fighters to “go back to their old ways of hit-and-run insurgency and underground operations, and to disband the areas that they control,” according to a source who directly reviewed the documents. Fazul was “arguing that Al Shabab essentially give up the vast areas that they control in Somalia, in exchange for going underground across the country, including peaceful areas, in Somaliland and Puntland, and disrupting the whole country,” says the source. Fazul argued that “Al Shabab controls about 40 percent of Somalia. And the other 60 percent is either peaceful or semi-peaceful, and most people in Somalia are not feeling the pinch of Al Shabab.” Fazul advocated that the Shabab “just wreak havoc, carry out small operations, assassinations, throughout Somalia. And that creates a situation like in Mogadishu, where everyone is fearful of them—whether you live in a Shabab-controlled area or under the government area. You cannot travel at night and so on. So that’s his vision, to create a total savagery throughout the country.”
Perhaps the Shabab is truly on the ropes, as the Somali government claims. Or maybe the group is implementing Fazul’s vision of a guerrilla terror campaign that gives up territory in favor of sowing fear throughout the country. In any case, the Shabab’s meteoric rise in Somalia, and the legacy of terror it has wrought, is blowback sparked by a decade of disastrous US policy that ultimately strengthened the very threat it was officially intended to crush. In the end, the greatest beneficiaries of US policy are the warlords, including those who once counted the Shabab among their allies and friends. “They are not fighting for a cause,” says Ahmed Nur Mohamed, the Mogadishu mayor. “And the conflict will start tomorrow, when we defeat Shabab. These militias are based on clan and warlordism and all these things. They don’t want a system. They want to keep that turf as a fixed post—then, whenever the government becomes weak, they want to say, ‘We control here.’ ”